The Paradox of General Duty.“You can't please God & the world at the same time; they're opposed to each other in thought, desire & action”—attributed to the Cure D’Ars

On the internet, there are so many false quotes attributed to Mother Theresa in circulation that her eponymous Calcutta Centre has taken to issuing lists of denials. Some of them sound very much like the sort of things that she could have said, with Balkan commonsense; one that strikes me, for instance, is that if you want to love the world, go home and love your family.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that quote this week as I turned over the issues of selective abortion, gay marriage, the American contraceptive debate, workfare and the economic crisis in my mind. Solipsist that I am, I would say that they were all linked in a way that was obvious to others; but the truth is that they are, because they represent the failings of a society so dedicated to enforcing general duties from the top down that it has forgotten the special value of human beings and their link to the common good below.

The psuedoquote of Mother Theresa speaks to a sense of how what Aristotle called ‘special duties’ leak into general ones. Immanuel Kant had a similar idea. Since people are special in themselves—each man is a world entire—it is morally good to respect people in general, and to offer general hospitality and rights to all people. However, because people are trained to be the way they are in smaller groups, and because people feel the power of respect and the moral good that flows from it when they owe it to people who are in some sense special to them, smaller groups ought to be engines of general respect. People ought to be able to learn in families and friendships why people other than themselves are important, and this might then extend into an intellectual understanding that any other sentient thing is like to my kin.

This idea is radically pluralistic. It is radical because it doesn’t really matter what group people learn their special duty in, though the traditional family is probably best when it works; what matters is that they make the intellectual connection with others. Since we are diverse, different groups will matter more or less to us. A fair and decent society which put the elaborated specialness of all at its head wouldn’t create one state that forced a uniform code onto people. Communities and cities lead to nations; nations lead to world society. Not a world government or a bureaucracy. Kant himself was a little confused on this point, possibly because he was German. In his decent republic, particular political processes and reason-based policy would mean that there was no right of rebellion and a duty to obey all laws whatsoever. Instead, in some Madisonian Federalist Paper 51 way, interest would balance interest.

The difference between Kant and the founders of the American constitution—and between them and the founders of the American republic ten years before—was probably that Kant thought that reason-based processes were naturally an improvement on what went before, and that they could tame and progressively improve human nature, allowing people to explore what he called the ‘inner freedom’ of self control. The Catholic tradition, by contrast, has overlapped with Kant, but builds in the idea of a fallen humanity which learns partially and gradually, but which is doomed to eternal recurrence unless it embraces faith. Only faith lifts reason and tradition out of time and contingency.

Faith also conveys the ultimate and special personal dignity of people, rather than the simple assertion of human specialness. Indeed, if you are a Kantian or other liberal, though your view of people as special must imply equality at a basic level, you’ll know or suspect that it is only at this basic level. The management of unequal talents and worldly abilities, what Margaret Thatcher called the recognition of difference, is usually only reconciled by liberals in equality of opportunity. The specialness of people in that creed can therefore not stop them from living under a bridge or impose a duty to preclude that; living conditions are in fact irrelevant to it.

Catholic Thomism in the twentieth century might have been adapted to Kantian republicanism, or vice versa. I’ve seen it attempted. What is not compatible with either outlook, however, is the positivist idea that we are isolated individuals, who must calculate on the basis of utility and, at most, only of special duty. As J.S.Mill knew, utilitarian views become coercive quickly. Once the greatest good of the greatest number is recognised, and associated with what would be the rational choice of the general will if it had a choice, then those who stand against it are by definition either incapable of rationality, deranged, malign or too dependent to embrace freedom.

Utilitarian views are in fact Pelagianism disguised as realism. The old joke about the glass of water springs to mind. Four people who consider themselves hard-headed, but of different outlooks are in a bar. One is an optimist, and sees the glass as half-full; another is a pessimist who sees it as half-empty. The realist sees it as a diminishing glass of water which needs to be used quickly and carefully. The opportunist who has attached himself to them drinks it.

If you think about it, to be true to his nature, the opportunist can’t help drinking it. Once drunk, he has to justify his selfishness by suggesting that anyone rational would have done the same thing and from that, it is a short jump to suggesting that anyone rational must do the same thing. From there, people are locked into coercion.

Isn’t that what is happening to us, as a society on both sides of the Atlantic?

Our social contract with the unemployed was lost long ago. Once, there was consideration on both sides; a few months off for a productive employee who didn’t like charity and whose friends and family looked to help them in it, as a special duty, balanced by a state which funded their minimal consumption from tax revenues to which they had contributed.

Now, we have a coercive system of tax letting a whole class of people off work for very long periods so long as they pose no more than a minimal challenge to a state which holds an implicit power to remove their liberty, children or homes if they fail to comply, and which now seeks to make them work for the money of others at the behest of unimaginably profitable oligopolies. That's one lesson of the Scandinavian system which made its way around the Atlantic rim and is now lapping at us, if you look at the statstics. The other side of it, of course is that you have generations who will not work for their bread. This is possibly because many jobs offer little dignity, given how capitalism seems to like the exploitation of slave states and immigrant arbitrage, and because currencies offer diminishing purchasing power every year.

We have a banking system further draining the debased fruitbaskets of printed capital because it, too, broke a deal that those to whom much was given would take personal risks.

We have a state absolutely determined to use a perfectly viable argument about equal treatment for citizens (registry offices are, after all, secular places for taxpayers) to isolate people of conscience and to bring sacraments and churches under public control so that a full human identity can be hung on a number of sexual acts;

We have the consequences of the American administration dragging a condom on a string through a church in a transparent mix of arrogance and electoral ploy, which at the moment is illustrating the base division that American politics has become.

I look at all this and I wonder at the imbalance of it all. The Cure d’Ars felt that God and the world were opposed, and the symbol of the cross—the most worldly instrument of torture and death—might suggest that on contemplation. But though people are called to witness, they are not called to be martyrs immediately. We do not have to genuflect before this badness.

Large parts of our world are fixable, with a little love and reason, and with patience most of our economic problems are too. What is going on right now is that an imbalance of statism, self-righteousness and narcissism has a grip, and a declining economic model has followed thereafter.

Our problems are made by us. We are not educating ourselves in our special duty, and we are letting malign bureaucracies define and call us to our general duty. We are not calling ourselves to our own personal dignity or that of others. I think that the war, abortion and euthanasia industries probably have a lot to do with that, and in a proper civilisation we would be suppressing them. Yet, we are living within Kantian republics which insist to themselves, from the textbooks in which the politicians are trained to the judgments in which the lawyers are schooled, that our states are just and that we cannot resist.

I cannot help thinking that, before things get better, they can only, in such an imbalanced Atlantic world, get much worse.

The picture above represents Rubens' view of Roman charity. I suppose, in the darkest moments, we could all hope for a spot of it.


Martin....totally agree with the thrust of your post. It is ironic how a little persecution galvanizes the faithful. Ever since the birth control mandate, Catholics and other Christians have seen the inhuman face of the secularists who now control government, media and academia in the US. Although historically secularists were seen as religion neutral and therefore a good thing, in reality secularists hold religion and its practitioners in contempt. The brave new world of abortion, euthanasia and infanticide is upon us and those who oppose it will be deemed as expendable and no longer tolerated. What we are experiencing is not progress but rather a uturn back to the morality of the ancient pagans.
Martin Meenagh said…
I think that there has always been a certain sort of person, on the left and the right, who happily embraces the culture of death. The eugenicists and warmongers of the left and right, the abortionists and slaveholders--they all shared in the eruption of what can only really be described as the Satanic principle, which is the principle of unalloyed individual freedom set on fire by pride. This can't last, though.
Jack said…
Very interesting read, Martin. You mention freedom in your article and refer to Mill. I've never quite understood the difference between the Republicans and Marxists conceptions of freedom - do they share a conception of non-domination as opposed to non-interference?
Martin Meenagh said…
Pettit certainly thinks that republicans should have a view of freedom as non-domination, which is drawn I think from Isaiah Berlin's idea that not only should there be every door open, but there should be no doormen. I think that most liberals in the tradition of Hobbes would prefer what Marx would call the 'isolated monad'--the idea that people should just be free from interference, as should states. Marx thought of humans as a social species and freedom as being integrated in the group to live one's life in social relations at peace from economic worry--I think. The truth is that Marx was such a troubled individual that you wonder if his vision wasn't a personal fantasy.

I'm quite keen on Vitoria and latterly on Sen and Nussbaum, who are quite difficult to reconcile. Vitoria thought of humankind in terms of a Great Society (I think that is where Goodwin got Johnson's tagline from, though LBJ could have seen it himself in Texas)with states as small republics that had obligations to each other and a moral duty to provide the basis of the good life. This was found in a sound economy, agriculture, and the elimination of domination within by means of justice, so morality and political settlements were intertwined. If states broke their duties, they stopped being states, since they were merely vehicles for your parish in the great society.

The idea is similar to Habermas' that people who talk will be moral and free, and generate law, and thereby build non-liberal republics of mutual obligation which are guaranteed by the existence and obligations of their peers. I can't quite reconcile this to Nussbaum and Sen's idea of freedom as capability, rather than rights, though I'd like to just out of personal prejudice. It'd be a strange beast that I constructed if I could. Neither set of my putative whole is particularly liberal though, I'll admit--but then at heart, neither am I.

Thank you for your comment, Jack, I appreciate your interest.